A defamation lawsuit filed by longtime Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler against the network alleges that President Trump was directly involved in concocting a fake story intended to undercut the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russian hackers waged cyberattacks against Democratic targets to help him get elected.
The Fox News story — headlined “DC MURDER MYSTERY: Slain DNC staffer was WikiLeaks’ source, say investigators” — was heavily promoted on Sean Hannity’s show and Fox & Friends, but was retracted by Fox News about a week after it was published. It falsely claimed there was evidence linking slain former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich with WikiLeaks, which published emails hacked from the DNC.
The explosive lawsuit was first reported by NPR.
Wheeler’s lawsuit begins with a screencap of a text message he received from Ed Butowsky, a Fox News contributor who has also written articles for Breitbart. In May, NBC reported that Butowsky was bankrolling a private investigation into Rich’s death. Butowsky denied any involvement during a conversation with ThinkProgress that took place hours before NBC’s report was published.
On May 14 — the day before Fox News published the story — Wheeler claims Butowsky sent him a text indicating President Trump read the article and wanted it published immediately.
Wheeler alleges that just before he sent that text, Butowsky left him a voicemail and said, “A couple minutes ago I got a note that we have the full, uh, attention of the White House, on this. And, tomorrow, let’s close this deal, whatever we’ve got to do. But you can feel free to say that the White House is onto this now.”
Wheeler claims that the Fox News story, authored by investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman, contained two quotes attributed to him that were completely fabricated. But they were included in the story at Trump’s direction.
The lawsuit claims that Butowsky and Zimmerman hoped the story “would debunk reports the Russian were responsible for the DNC hacks” and “undermine reports of collusion between Russia and the Trump Administration.” It claims that in the weeks ahead of the article’s publication, Butowsky was in touch with then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer, White House strategist Steve Bannon, and Department of Justice spokesperson Sarah Flores “regarding his efforts related to Seth Rich.” Wheeler says he and Butowsky met with Spicer “and provided him with a copy of [Wheeler’s] investigative notes.”
But the day the story was published, Spicer denied having foreknowledge of the Fox News report, saying during the White House press briefing that “I’m not aware of that… it would be highly inappropriate to do that.”
Spicer has now changed his story. He confirmed to NPR that he met with Butowsky after all.
Wheeler claims that he became upset when he read the Fox News piece and saw the fabricated quotes attributed to him.
Despite Fox News’ retraction, Wheeler says that the network never cleared his name “and never admitted that Zimmerman had misquoted him.”
“[T]o this day Fox has not issued any statement admitted that the quotes attributed to Mr. Wheeler were not made by him, nor has Fox apologized to Mr. Wheeler,” the lawsuit says.
Butowsky told Vanity Fair media reporter Gabriel Sherman that Wheeler’s allegations are “bullshit” and that he’s never spoken to Trump in his life.
Ed Butowsky tells me federal lawsuit is "bullshit" and denies sharing Fox article with WH. "I've never spoken to Trump in my life," he says.
— Gabriel Sherman (@gabrielsherman) August 1, 2017
A call to Butowsky’s cell phone by ThinkProgress was not immediately returned. Wheeler claims that every quotation included in his lawsuit “is from an email, text message, published news article and/or recorded or videotaped conversation.”
UPDATE (12:15 p.m., 8/1): In a statement, Fox News President Jay Wallace doesn’t deny that Trump was involved in the network’s since-retracted Seth Rich story, but says “[t]he accusation that FoxNews.com published Malia Zimmerman’s story to help detract from coverage of the Russia collusion issue is completely erroneous.”
NEW Jay Wallace statement regarding Wheeler lawsuit: pic.twitter.com/AgyiH8Ej1f
— Hadas Gold (@Hadas_Gold) August 1, 2017
Meanwhile, CNN reports that Butowsky is now claiming the texts and phone calls he sent Wheeler about Trump’s involvement in Fox News’ Seth Rich coverage were meant in jest.
Included in the lawsuit is a text message from Butowsky to Wheeler in which Butowsky writes, “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you. But don’t feel the pressure.”
Butowsky told CNN that this message was a joke referring to what he said was Wheeler’s desire for a job with the Trump administration. “This was Rod and I,” Butowsky said. “We teased all the time. We were basically telling him you are doing a great job and that the president or the White House or somebody would be interested in meeting you.”
The Rich family released a statement expressing hope that the conspiracy theories surrounding Seth’s death will finally come to an end.
Statement from the Seth Rich family pic.twitter.com/p7siiOIYKh
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) August 1, 2017
UPDATE II (2 p.m., 8/1): In a statement, Sean Spicer acknowledges meeting with Butowsky at the White House, but says the topic of conversation wasn’t specified in advance and denies that Trump was involved.
Comment from Sean Spicer about allegations in Rod Wheeler lawsuit: pic.twitter.com/HxT19nhgAn
— Paul Farhi (@farhip) August 1, 2017
CNN reports that in an email, Spicer confirmed he and Butowsky discussed Seth Rich during the meeting.
“They told me they were working on a story about him and wanted me to be aware of it — that’s it,” Spicer wrote.
But Spicer’s comments on Tuesday contradict what he said during the White House press briefing on May 16, shortly after Fox News published its Seth Rich story.
“I don’t — I’m not aware of — generally, I don’t get updates on DNC — former DNC staffers,” Spicer told reporters on that day. “I’m not aware of that… I don’t even know the status of it in terms of D.C. — but it would be highly inappropriate to do that.”